YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — A change in the military’s health-care system this fall could mean more expensive medical bills and longer waits for appointments for servicemembers’ families brought overseas without command sponsorship, according to the 18th Medical Command.

The change, effective Oct. 1 (See Graphic), won’t affect active-duty servicemembers themselves, said Col. Brian Allgood, 18th Medical commander and top officer at the 121st General Hospital in Seoul. Servicemembers will continue to be eligible for the “prime” level of medical service through Tricare, the insurance provider for the military, he said Monday.

But the change will affect the family members of servicemembers who have orders to report to an overseas post alone, but choose to foot the bill to bring their families along.

Starting Oct. 1, these family members, often referred to as nonsponsored or unaccompanied dependents, will have only “standard” level of services through Tricare available to them, Allgood said.

The good news, Allgood said, is that servicemembers who sign their families up for Tricare’s prime level before Oct. 1 will be grandfathered into the more generous plan. That level, however, will last only through the servicemembers’ current overseas assignment, he said.

There are two major differences between prime and standard, Allgood said. First, prime covers nearly all expenses a patient incurs when visiting a local, off-base hospital or physician. This is a common practice in South Korea when specialized medical care is needed, he said.

Standard Tricare, however, requires deductibles and shared costs when getting off-base medical care, he said. Additionally, patients with standard care may be asked to pay the entire cost of a medical visit upfront then wait for reimbursement from Tricare. Paying upfront for medical care is a common practice among South Korean hospitals and doctors, he said.

Patients with Tricare — prime or standard — do not have to pay for medical care on base.

The second difference, Allgood said, is that the standard Tricare patients won’t have the same priority for regular appointments and exams at base medical facilities as the prime-level patients. That likely won’t affect waiting times for standard patients in the near future, but as USFK downsizes in coming years, a shrinking medical staff may have to prioritize some appointments, he said.

It’s hard to estimate how many families this change may affect, Allgood said, as servicemembers aren’t required to register their unaccompanied family members for health care.

In South Korea, only about 10 percent of all servicemembers get orders that include bringing family members to the peninsula. Right now, the medical command estimates there are 3,300 military family members living on the peninsula without being officially sponsored by the command, according to U.S. Forces Korea and 18th Medical Command.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing family members overseas at servicemembers’ expense, said David Oten, a spokesman for USFK. Medical officials, however, worry about health care for these people, Allgood said.

When a family comes overseas with command sponsorship, medical commands can review the family’s health records and prepare for a family member who might have a chronic illness and require special care. With unaccompanied members, this level of review is never done, he said.

Allgood stressed the change wouldn’t affect on-base health care for emergencies.

“If anyone has an emergency problem, we will always treat first and ask questions later,” he said.

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